Brian Gutekunst Built A Mansion In Football No-Man’s Land

There’s a lot of talk in professional football about going all-in — maybe a little too much talk.

The term is thrown around so loosely, it’s literally shifted meanings (kind of like the word “literally”). Half the time when people refer to a team going all-in, all they really mean is “They’re trying super hard to win” (which is, you know, kind of the genera idea of sports). Talking about going all-in is fast becoming the next “We gave 110%.”

Actually going all-in comes at a cost. This is, after all, a poker metaphor. It means pushing all those chips into the center of the table to take the whole pot for yourself or else lose big. It’s not a perfect analogy for football, because you don’t literally forfeit your whole team if you lose (that would be wild, though). Rather, you mortgage your future for the glorious present. You eat dessert first, dinner be damned. Carpe diem Lombardi.

Perhaps no team has been as affiliated with the all-in metaphor as the Green Bay Packers of the last couple years. Essentially from the moment they opted to re-sign Aaron Rodgers the obvious thinking was to maximize No. 12’s waning years and finally get him that elusive second ring (or, as Tom Brady calls it, the emergency go-to ring after my secondary spare back-up).

The thing is, Gutekunst was never all-in — not that ever even claimed to be. From infamously drafting Love to refusing for years to spend a first-round pick on a receiving weapon to his unwillingness to swap any draft capital later in the decade for high-end talent right now, Gutekunst has always kept one eye on next year’s calendar. Certainly it’s a GM’s responsibility to balance immediate needs with consideration for the future. But the reality is, by almost-but-not-quite-fully committing to the present, Gutekunst has built a mansion in football no-man’s land.

What all-in football really looks like is the 2021 Los Angeles Rams. Los Angeles didn’t just mortgage their future, they double-mortgaged it and then took that money to the casino. They’re set to go an astonishing seven consecutive years without a first-round pick. They traded a 2022 second- and third-round pick for Von Miller. They blew a little money on Odell Beckham Jr. for a year, although that was a comparatively minimal investment — but a smart one, made when it mattered most.

BBut the Rams success doesn’t neccisarily prove their approach to be goodis a tried and true approach, or one you’d want to watch Gutekunst follow.

Green Bay is famous for its draft-and-develop approach. It’s a philosophy that’s served them well. But maximizing a window calls for a quick fix, not a slow course correction, and going all-in — as befits the metaphor — requires gambling some of your savings.

The Packers sign Reggie White and win a Super Bowl.

The Packers sign Charles Woodson and win a Super Bowl

The last 3 years Green Bay has felt like they were exactly one of these type of moves away from hoisting the trophy. Yet there Gutekunst sat. Proud of the future he was building. Believing he was competing in the moment. And completely clueless about how close they were and how capable he was of making the difference.

The 2022 Packers clearly aren’t living up to pre-season expectations. That is surprising, but many of their particular shortcomings are not. The calls to draft more weapons for Rodgers have been coming for so long they’ve become a grim kind of running gag, and the worries about the off-season departure of Davante Adams have proven totally founded. The Zone Coverage archive is full of articles warning about the dangers of an offense without either a deep threat or a clutch third-down target becoming one-dimensional and critically limited.

The defense filled with high-level draft picks is under achieving and the running back that Gutekunst insisted on drafting, although very good, is taking wraps away from the team’s best playmaker.

Rodgers’ tendency to warm slowly to rookie receivers is another well-worn trope, yet who is he supposed to be throwing to? A pair of rookies, neither of whom were first-round prospects. And what has been the result? Exactly what you would expect. Romeo Doubs in particular has played well, but he and Christian Watson are both still both rookies. Think what you will about Rogers’ skepticism about first-year pass-catchers, rookies make rookie mistakes. They run the wrong routes or, you know, maybe drop a big pass here or there. Rodgers isn’t wrong. Gutekunst has surrounded him with a couple of young guys with great prospects, but Rodgers has to help break them in…for when, exactly?

The end result is that the Packers are, as the old Steeler’s Wheel song says, stuck in the middle. They’re not all in. This is still, after all these years, a hedged bet. But at what point does fear of a mediocre future become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Gutekunst’s reluctance to face a potentially bleak tomorrow has left the team with an uncertain today.

Frustrating as this team is, they’re still not a tier below the fortune-favored 5-1 Minnesota Vikings, and they’re going to get a chance to prove it at Lambeau later this year. They have games against the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears to stack some wins and refine the offense.

And the other good news is, Gutekunst has still shown a knack for finding gems in the draft, and Matt LaFleur and his staff can develop them into stars. Gutekunst can learn from these mistakes and do his damnedest to fully seize the opportunity the next time it comes around.

But when will that be? That nagging question in the back of fans minds, that scenario that was made all the more real by the panic of the Rodgers re-signing kerfuffle, isn’t just looming any more.   The Packers don’t look like contenders this year, and that uncertain future is closer than ever. Do they — can they? — really go all-in next year if Rodgers returns?

The Packers are a historically resilient team. They’re not going to transform into the Lions in one short year. Gutekunst can continue to evolve his process and build a dominant team. Five years from now this might be the dumbest Packers article ever written. But his indecision about whether to build or bet big has left the Packers stranded in limbo. He’s built a team that’s been pretty dang good for a long time, and will likely be again. But because of his fear of the future, he could never fully embrace the present, and the cost of that caution is that they might not be winning it all anytime soon.

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